Fire pump design on motorized vehicles underwent a radical change starting as early as 1912. That was when the basic fire pump designs started to change over from the positive displacement type to centrifugal pumps. This was a very gradual transition and typically started with the larger city/municipal departments with pressurized hydrant systems switching over first. Rural departments that employed drafting more frequently generally used the positive displacement pumps a little longer, for reasons explained below. Seagrave and VanPelt were two truck builders that pioneered the use of centrifugal pumps. By the end of World War II, the centrifugal pump dominated the fire service. However, centrifugal fire pumps require that the suction be completely flooded with water to produce pressure; otherwise, the operator must use a primer to completely remove the air from the pump suction by providing enough vacuum to bring water into the suction hoses and the fire pump inlet.

Positive displacement fire pumps were truly “self-priming.” The positive displacement fire pumps initially used were typically piston or rotary pumps. A self-priming pump can pump air and water, so all an operator must do is attach a suction line to a water source, engage the pump, open a discharge, and wait for all the air to move through the pump and the water to follow. This was the earliest, least complicated, and most reliable way to apply a fire stream when starting from a nonpressurized water source.

However, there were many good reasons for moving away from positive displacement pumps toward the centrifugal fire pump design. The centrifugal pump has a much simpler design with fewer moving parts, is much easier to manufacture, and does not require as precise part tolerances. All these advantages make the centrifugal fire pump more reliable and easier to maintain and keep in service. But the most important advantage of centrifugal fire pumps is that they are capable of much higher flows for a given pump size and weight. The biggest rotary or piston pump (and they were huge) could not flow more than about 1,300 gallons per minute (gpm). Today, centrifugal pump ratings average 1,500 gpm and can be as high as 3,500 gpm on industrial pumpers.

Among centrifugal fire pumps’ disadvantages is the need for a second pump (the priming pump) that is required to create enough vacuum to let atmospheric pressure push the air out of the suction hoses and pump by passing through the primer. In addition, centrifugal pumps have very little tolerance for air when pumping. Centrifugal pumps rely on centrifugal force to sling the water from the impeller suction to the impeller outlet; this high-velocity water is then turned into pressure in the pump casing. Because air (at sea level) is 784 times lighter than water, the centrifugal pump impeller is not large enough and cannot spin fast enough to give the relatively lightweight air any significant velocity, so the air just remains in the pump suction, and NO pressure can be generated (Figure 1). That is also why you can lose prime if you get a major suction leak when drafting or have a large air bubble find its way to the eye of the centrifugal impeller under any suction condition. Whenever that happens, the discharge pressure can drop off completely, and the personnel at the other end of the hose will be put in harm’s way.

The primer must develop enough vacuum to remove all the air from the pump and suction hose and lift the water to completely fill the suction of the pump when it is at an elevation above that of the water source. It must also do this within the time specified in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard for Automotve Fire Apparatus, which allows 30 seconds to prime a 1,250-gpm or smaller pump and 45 seconds to prime a 1,500-gpm or larger pump. An additional 15 seconds is allowed if the pump has additional suction volume at a front or rear suction connection.

As shown in Figure 2, the vacuum required to lift the water to a given height (prime) can be read on the compound gauge. By converting the reading on the compound gauge (in inches of mercury—in/Hg) to feet of water, you can tell exactly how far up the hose the water has risen while you are priming. You can also see how high the pump suction is above the water level by watching the compound gauge and reading the vacuum just as water starts to discharge from the primer. So when priming, the maximum vacuum required is equal to only the height that the water must be raised.

When the priming operation is complete, the centrifugal fire pump will begin to pump water and build discharge pressure. When pumping water, the centrifugal pump becomes an excellent vacuum pump and must now pull a higher vacuum on the suction side of the pump. The higher vacuum is a combination of the height to which the water is being lifted, plus the friction losses in the strainer and suction hoses because of the water flow, plus the velocity head—which is the pressure energy required to move the water at any given flow. The friction losses and velocity head increase exponentially as the flow through the pump increases. So the vacuum that the water pump must produce when flowing water is always more than the vacuum the primer must produce to prime (Figure 3).

Many approaches to priming have been taken over the years, but almost all of them rely on a small positive displacement pump in addition to the centrifugal water pump. The earliest primers were small rotary gear pumps, typically driven from the transfer case or back of the fire pump shaft. These primers used a small tank of motor oil to lubricate and seal the passages of the rotary gear pump when it was running dry and evacuating air. The priming pump would be engaged either through a clutch or alternatively in the transfer case shift choices, which had positions for pump, prime, neutral, and road.

B.D. Barton patented an interesting alternative to the positive displacement primer in 1925, in which the gasoline engine manifold vacuum was used to prime the fire pump. This system worked well and completely eliminated the need for an additional priming pump. However, it did require an elaborate float valve and drain system to ensure that water would never be pulled into the engine. This system was used on trucks with Barton American pumps built by the P.E. VanPelt Company. The diesel engines powering today’s vehicles do not have manifold vacuum.

As technology changed, so did the available choices for means to power the primer. In the early 1960s, the fire truck electrical systems started to grow and larger alternators became available. This enabled the use of electrically driven primers, which are still popular today. Initially, the primers were the same small rotary gear pumps, now connected to an electric starter motor. The next priming pump design used was an electric motor-driven rotary vane type that has sliding vanes spinning on a rotor eccentrically mounted in a circular housing. The original rotary vane designs also used oil to lubricate and help seal the spaces between the housing and primer vanes during the dry running portion of the priming cycle. These primer motors can draw currents as high as 250 to 300 amperes and often create low-voltage problems for electronic devices.

Today, most primer manufacturers offer an oil-free primer to address the environmental concern of discharging oil on the ground. The oil-free primer also removes the need to mount an oil tank and provide an access door for the tank and saves on the routine maintenance of keeping the tank filled. Without the oil to lubricate and seal the inside of the primer, the oil-free primers are a little less efficient and develop maximum vacuums slightly lower than their oiled predecessors. As with all “dry-lubricated” devices, the friction must be reduced through the use of special materials. For rotary vane primers, this means the vanes must include significant amounts of substances such as carbon, graphite, or TeflonT in their construction. The lubrication then comes from a small amount of these materials wearing away as they rotate around the housing and slide in and out of the slots in the rotor to keep the heat of friction down to a tolerable value. Without the oil lubricant, the eventual result is wear to the vanes and housing. The time between vane and housing replacements will be directly proportional to the primer’s usage.

Meanwhile, portable pumps (also centrifugal type) were using the gasoline engine’s exhaust to power a small venturi that would then pull a vacuum on the suction of the pump. The exhaust primer is still the standard offering with today’s engine-driven portables. The design does require forcing the hot exhaust gases through a heat-resistant venturi and then switching back to discharging the exhaust to the atmosphere when the priming cycle is complete. This is generally accomplished with a steel tank that replaces the regular muffler and has the venturi mounted at the bottom. A metal “bottle capper” is located at the top that is manually closed off to prime and opened again when the priming cycle is completed. The engine usually must be run at maximum speed to create enough exhaust backpressure to properly drive the venturi primer. Personnel must be careful not to touch the hot exhaust components and to close the valve between the pump suction and venturi after the priming is complete.

Improved vehicle technology continues to evolve, and today an extremely simple and highly reliable power source for a primer is available on fire trucks, air pressure. Starting in the 1940s, air brakes were occasionally used on fire trucks; in the 1980s, they gained increased popularity and reliability, partly because of the deregulation of the trucking industry, which allowed heavier trucks on federal highways. Today, air brakes are standard on 99 percent of the trucks produced. The air brake system uses an engine-driven compressor, a pressure governor, and a series of air tanks to keep the air pressure at between 90 and 125 pounds per square inch gauge (psig) at all times. The air compressors are sized to meet the FMVSS-121 (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards) braking requirements. These requirements generally translate to a minimum compressor size of 13.2 cubic feet per minute (cfm) on a fire truck chassis. When the truck is parked at a fire scene, no air is required for braking. So, using the air power readily available from the engine compressor to drive other devices is as easy as running an air line and simply makes good sense.

The AirPrime™ is a new primer design that uses air from the truck’s compressor to power a multistage venturi to prime the fire pump. The highly efficient venturi primer has been carefully designed to exactly match the air pressure and flows available from the standard-size vehicle air compressors. Trident Emergency Products, LLC, developed this primer in 2001. The patent-pending AirPrime™ solves many of the problems associated with the prior primer designs discussed in this article. It is lightweight and compact, has no moving parts to wear, uses no lubricants (only water and air are discharged), consumes no electrical power, and is self-draining. Today these primers are proving themselves in service on fire trucks across North America .

The AirPrime™ operates when compressed air flows in. This is accomplished by depressing a simple pushbutton on the operator’s panel. The air pressure both opens the inlet valve and powers the multistage venturi to create a vacuum at the inlet. The primer is mounted vertically and discharges out of the bottom (Figure 4).

There have been some fairly recent changes in fire truck plumbing and fire scene operation that affect the best way to prime. The most significant change is the increased use of large-diameter hose (LDH) that can be connected to gated-side, gated-front, or gated-rear suctions. A typical rural scenario would be arriving at a fire scene and immediately running a 11/2-inch crosslay while pumping from the onboard water tank. As the fire develops, a tanker arrives and a folding tank is set up and filled with the first load of water. A suction hose from the passenger side-gated LDH inlet is dropped into the folding tank. But, how do you prime the line to the folding tank? If you just open the gated suction on the passenger side, you will surely lose prime and then pressure at the nozzle end of the crosslay. If the truck is equipped with a primer selector valve (a three-way valve is often used) that has a prime location on the UP-stream side of the passenger-side suction valve, you are in business—just move the selector valve and start the primer. But what if the truck has multiple suction locations such as front, rear, or either side where the most convenient one could be used for any given fire scene? You could have a series of primer selector valves for each location, but that gets confusing. You could have multiple primers (one for each location), but that gets expensive. Until now there has not been a straightforward way or product to handle this problem.

The AirPrime™ system has an optional remote priming valve (RPV), which is a simple air-operated shuttle. When air pressure is applied, the shuttle valve opens; when air pressure is removed, the valve closes. This allows one prime to operate on multiple priming locations. There is one pushbutton marked for each priming location on the operator’s panel. Air line connections and vacuum lines are required, as depicted in Figure 5.

Many departments have SOPs on when and when not to prime the pump. Given the problems that can arise if all the air is NOT completely removed from the suction hoses and pump passages, it is very simple to ALWAYS engage the primer before charging any hose. In addition, when switching between water sources, there is never any harm in engaging the primer until a steady flow of water is apparent. Most gated intake valves have a bleeder valve to let all the air out of a positive-pressure suction hose, before the valve is opened, when pumping from a hydrant or in a relay operation. In long LDH hoselays, there can be a huge amount of air to evacuate. Venting all the air through the bleeder valve is critical and will help to keep the discharge pressure from falling off because air is in the impeller when the intake valve is opened. For pumps equipped to prime from multiple locations, engaging the primer for each gated intake point used is another way to vent the air. So, if in doubt about the right time to prime, the proper answer is EVERY TIME.

RICH TESKE is a registered professional engineer and vice president of sales and administration for Trident Emergency Products LLC. Previously, he worked for Hale Fire Pump Company as manager of research and development and vice president of engineering and for the ITT Domestic Pump Division as a research and development engineer. Teske has served on the NFPA 1901 apparatus committee and continues to serve on various NFPA task teams. He is named as inventor/co-inventor on seven United States patents for firefighting-related products.

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